When I was 7 years old, I dreamed of becoming a jet pilot. No life seemed as romantic to me as that of the F-86 Sabrejet pilots that I saw in movie newsreels about the Korean War. But childhood dreams are just that — dreams. I didn’t have the “Right Stuff to be a jet pilot or any sort of pilot.”
If I had been more like my pilot friend, Bill, my dream might have come true. Bill always thinks twice before he does anything. He assumes nothing about the future. If you say to Bill, “It’s a nice day,” he might pause, look at the sky, think about it for a moment, and respond, “Yeah, it’s pretty nice. For now.”
Such reflective thinking seems to an innate skill of every successful pilot, if “successful” means surviving thousands of hours of in aircraft cockpits. Reflective thinking is nothing but scientific thinking, where thinking about the big picture, paying attention to details, and testing every new idea is mandatory.
Franz Reichelt Orville and Wilbur Wright did a lot of reflective thinking before they flew the world’s first successful aircraft, the Wright Flyer, in 1903. The Austrian-born Franz Reichelt, however, apparently was not a reflective thinker. In 1912, he leaped from the Eiffel Tower with a “wearable parachute” of his own design, paying little heed to the fact that none of his previous experiments had ended well. I wonder if he engaged in some reflective thinking before his body gouged a small crater into at the base of the Eiffel Tower.
I am more of a reflective thinker than Franz Reichelt — I wouldn’t leap from the Eiffel Tower under any circumstances — but I am much less a reflective thinker than my friend Bill. I proved that when I was 19 and I begged a ride in a U.S. Forest Service plane so I could photograph an aerial tanker dropping retardant on a forest fire. See **Surviving a plane crash in the Black Range*.
Nevertheless, I have enjoyed many interesting flights by leaving the pilotage to pilots and just going along for the ride. It hasn’t always worked out well.